Iran’s great virus gamble: Mosques to reopen despite soaring death toll

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People wearing protective clothing attend the funeral of a victim who died from the new coronavirus, at a cemetery in the outskirts of the city of Ghaemshahr, north Iran, on May 1, 2020. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)
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Iranian President Hassan Rouhani chairing a cabinet session in the capital Tehran on May 3, 2020. (Iranian Presidency photo via AFP)
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Updated 04 May 2020

Iran’s great virus gamble: Mosques to reopen despite soaring death toll

  • Experts say more are infected than Tehran’s official figures
  • Health officials fear new spike in cases

JEDDAH: Hundreds of mosques in Iran will reopen their doors on Monday despite a soaring death toll from the coronavirus and uncertainty over how many Iranians have been infected.

Health Ministry spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour reported 976 new virus cases on Sunday, taking the total to 97,424, and the official death toll rose by 47 to 6,203.

But experts and officials both inside and outside Iran have cast doubt on the country’s official COVID-19 figures, and say the real number of cases could be much higher than reported.

Nevertheless, President Hassan Rouhani said on Sunday 132 administrative districts, about a third of the country, would “reopen their mosques as of tomorrow.”

Mosques would open “while respecting the health protocols,” Rouhani said. “Social distancing is more important than collective prayer.” 

He argued that Islam considered safety obligatory, while praying in mosques was only “recommended.”

Iran was slow to react to the virus pandemic. Mosques and key religious shrines in Mashad and Qom were not closed until mid March, and clerics actively encouraged pilgrims to visit even as the outbreak became the worst in the Middle East and spread from Iran to other countries in the region.

Tehran eventually tried to contain the spread of the virus by closing universities, cinemas, stadiums and other public spaces. But it has risked a phased reopening of its economy since April 11, arguing that because of US sanctions it cannot afford to remain shut down.

A ban on intercity trips has been lifted, and malls have reopened despite warnings by some health officials of a new wave of infections. Schools and universities remain closed and cultural and sports gatherings are banned, though Rouhani said schools in low-risk areas would reopen soon.

Only “high-risk” businesses such as gyms and barbershops remain closed. “We will continue the reopenings calmly and gradually,” Rouhani said.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia reported 1,552 new virus cases on Sunday, taking the total to 27,011, and the death toll rose by eight to 184. Worldwide, the virus has infected more than 3.5 million people and killed nearly 250,000.

Jordan lifted all remaining restrictions on economic activity on Sunday in the latest easing of coronavirus lockdown rules to help jump-start the economy. Authorities in Amman have  been gradually lifting restrictions in the past two weeks to allow businesses back to work, but with lower levels of staff and strict social distancing and hygiene guidelines.

Industry Minister Tariq Hammouri said businesses and industries would now be able to resume full production. Public transport will return to normal service with safety guidelines, but universities and schools will remain closed and a night curfew will continue.

Jordan has reported 460 confirmed coronavirus cases and nine deaths but says it has contained the outbreak. 

Prime Minister Omar Razzaz won praise for a fast response to the pandemic, but as the economic impact deepened there was criticism from business groups and fears of social unrest. 

In the US, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo resumed Washington’s attack on China for being responsible for the pandemic.

“There is a significant amount of evidence that this came from that laboratory in Wuhan,” Pompeo said. “The best experts so far seem to think it was man-made. I have no reason to disbelieve that at this point.”


Flash floods in southern Yemen kill five, displace hundreds

Updated 45 min 38 sec ago

Flash floods in southern Yemen kill five, displace hundreds

  • Five shepherds in the Henan valley were swept away as floods hit farms

AL-MUKALLA: Heavy rains and flash floods hit provinces in southern Yemen on Wednesday and Thursday, killing five people, displacing hundreds of families and isolating villages, local government officials told Arab News.

The heavy rain that began on Wednesday in Yemen's southern province of Hadramout triggered flash floods that killed five shepherds in the Henan valley and damaged farms.

“The five young men went to the valley to bring back their camels and sheep before floods washed them away,” Hesham Al-Souaidi, a local government official, told Arab News by telephone on Thursday.

Local authorities and residents found three bodies and are still searching for the other two.

Al-Souaidi said that flood waters destroyed farms and killed a large number of livestock in the agricultural Wadi Hadramout.

Southern Yemeni provinces have been bracing for the tropical depression since Saturday, when it hit Oman’s southern city of Salalah, as the country’s National Meteorological Center issued alerts, urging Yemenis to avoid traveling during the the storm and to avoid flood courses.

In coastal parts of Hadramout, hundreds of families living near flood channels were forced to flee to after flooding reached unprecedented levels.

Amen Barezaeg, a local government official assigned by the Hadramout governor to lead a relief committee, told Arab News that his team has documented the displacement of 450 families from Mayfa Hajer district alone, adding that the floods damaged roads, farms and isolated many remote areas in the province.

“We are now working on reopening roads to reach the isolated villages. The damage is huge,” he said.

Flash floods displaced dozens of families, washed away hundreds of palm trees and damaged dozens of houses in Hajr town, west of the city of Al-Mukalla, Hadramout province capital.

In some areas of Hadramout, residents said the floods were more destructive than those caused by cyclones over the last five years.

“We have never seen floods like this. Only the floods in 1996 were as strong as these,” Mohammed Bahamel, a journalist from Boroum Mayfa village, west of Al-Mukalla, told Arab News.

Heavy rains triggered flash flooding that wreaked similar havoc in Shabwa, Abyan and Aden, but with no reported casualties, according to local officials.

A government official in Shabwa province told Arab News that the floods washed away farms, isolated villages and damaged several houses.

In Aden, bulldozers were seen clearing mud from the streets as government officials inspected damage caused by the rain.

In April, the internationally recognized government declared Aden, the interim capital of Yemen, a “disaster” area after torrential rains and heavy flooding killed more than 10 people and damaged infrastructure.

Local health officials and residents say that the latest rainfall may set the stage for the spread of the coronavirus and other diseases that killed more than 1,000 people in May.

Wednesday’s floods destroyed the main road that links Hadramout province with Aden, disrupting movement of medical teams and vital medical supplies, including testing kits, officials said.

Meteorologists predicted that the rains would disappear on the weekend.

“Remnants of the tropical depression continue to produce rain across southwest Yemen. Rain will wane over the area on Friday,” Jason Nicholls, a meteorologist for AccuWeather, said on Twitter on Thursday.